Madonna has always been revolutionary. We knew that, growing up listening to her music. We could sense the freedom, the rebellion, the possibilities she offered. As a small child, discovering her greatest hits on 1990’s The Immaculate Collection, I used to shut myself in the back room and quite literally bounce around the four walls, hopping from the sofa to the armchair, rolling on the floor. Although too innocent to really connect with the sexual content, the joy I derived from her music wasn’t separate to her provocative lyrics. I didn’t always understand it, but I knew she was standing up for herself, empowering herself, demanding the best from and for herself.
And, 27 years later, she still is. She is still standing in front of the world, demanding the best – the best biceps, the best sex, the best outfits, the best dancers, the best live shows. She wants the best. She gives the best. And she is vilified for it.
In an interview with feminist writer Roxane Gay in February’s US Harper’s Bazaar, Madonna addresses head-on the criticism she attracts. “I've had the shit kicked out of me for my entire career, and a large part of that is because I'm female and also because I refuse to live a conventional life,” she says. “I've created a very unconventional family. I have lovers who are three decades younger than me. This makes people very uncomfortable. I feel like everything I do makes people feel really uncomfortable.”
Sometimes it’s easy to think of ultra-famous people as being somehow divorced from the ugliness that surrounds them: perhaps Madonna isn’t aware that Piers Morgan regularly calls her sinewy or whatever; perhaps she’s protected from the insidious, wrong-headed ageism and sexism that’s regularly directed at her, you might think. But Madonna knows about it, and she – as a woman who has been breaking down notions of what a woman can do for more than three decades – understands its genesis better than anyone.
We still allow women success – up to a point. We still assume their ambition comes second to their very womanliness
Madonna knows that women are expected to achieve success within a set of parameters. Madonna knows that to boldly speak about women’s sexuality is still a taboo. Madonna knows that motherhood is supposed to dampen ambition. Madonna knows all that, and she knows that she’ll have the “shit kicked out of [her]” for flouting the rules, but she does so anyway.
As she explains to Gay, working and making music and art is “like breathing, and I can't imagine not doing it”. So when her then husband Guy Ritchie asked her why she continued to pursue a career after already having achieved so much success, she found it “a very sexist thing to say”: “Does somebody ask Steven Spielberg why he's still making movies? Hasn't he had enough success? Hasn't he made enough money? Hasn't he made a name for himself? Did somebody go to Pablo Picasso and say, ‘Okay, you're 80 years old. Haven't you painted enough paintings?’ No. I'm so tired of that question. I just don't understand it. I'll stop doing everything that I do when I don't want to do it anymore. I'll stop when I run out of ideas. I'll stop when you fucking kill me.”
It’s a glorious statement: simple, succinct and so fucking true. We still allow women success – up to a point. We still assume their ambition comes second to their very womanliness. And we still expect women to become invisible as they age. As she says elsewhere in the interview, “A lot of times [touring is] the only way people are going to hear my music because you don't get to have your music played on Top 40 if you're above the age of 35.”
Madonna was a trailblazer at 25. But even more importantly, she is a trailblazer at 58. During the interview, Gay recalls Madonna telling a staff member to bin some bad wine. “Take the mediocre out of here,” she ordered him. It should be a mantra for women everywhere, applied to wine, to work, to love, to sex, to art. To everything. At every age.